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'Tis the Season to Be Triggered at Family Gatherings

No one can take away your holiday joy—but you.

Key points

  • We look forward to being with our families and close friends—yet it can all go sideways quickly.
  • Close relationships are the most powerful triggers that will sabotage joy.
  • You are fully responsiblefor both your happiness and response to triggers.
  • Understanding how to process triggers allows you to experience joy—even in the midst of chaos.

Co-authored by Dr. Les Aria

There are many ways to enjoy family and friends during this time of year. It is supposed to be a season of peace and joy. Yet some levels of crises keep happening at holiday family gatherings, and we keep gravitating back to the same historically chaotic situations. However, once you have navigated the obstacles to actually being with your friends or family, it would be reasonable to expect to relax and enjoy them.

Source: TALVA/AdobeStock

Defining a trigger

The basic problem arises from people in close relationships triggering each other. What does being “triggered” mean? We survive by learning from prior experiences what is safe or threatening, includes emotional states, which are processed in a similar manner as physical threats. Many, if not most, mental threats are perceived and are based on cognitive distortions. You will nevertheless be fired up. Your physiological states determine your psychological states; vice-versa.

Anytime you feel anxious or angry, something in the present has been connected to a situation in the past that was perceived as threatening or dangerous. Your adult brain still processes it in the same manner. You have been triggered.

The problem arises that once you are triggered, you are now in the past and not the present. You have lost awareness of the present moment, which is at the core of functional human relationships.

As your earliest and most powerful programming happens with your immediate family, they are the strongest and most consistent triggers. Close relationships are not far behind. The deeper problem is that, when you are in the state of threat physiology, the activity of your brain shifts from the neocortex (thinking centers) of your brain to the lower regions (survival) of your brain, and you cannot think clearly. It is not possible. As a result, your behaviors or those of others may be less than ideal.

What can you do? Here are some suggestions.

Dealing with triggers

The first and necessary step is to understand the problem. There are many resources that will help you understand the nature of chronic mental and physical pain. The essence of chronic disease is sustained exposure to your body’s threat chemistry—in other words, being constantly triggered. Here are a few practical suggestions.

Triggers are a whole-body response to a real or perceived threat. Here are three behavioral/physical cues to help you identify that you are being triggered so that you do not have to become fully activated by past family triggers.

  1. Mood Shifts: Notice when you experience a mood shift. Do not suppress the emotions. Burying emotions alive will lead you to step on them at some point during the holidays–KABOOM!
  2. Tension Shifts: Notice when you experience sudden muscle tension in your body. Check your shoulders right now for anxiety and anger/suppression of emotions.
  3. Breath Shifts: Notice how often you hold your breath when around certain family members. You know who they are! Are you holding your breath? Are you breathing shallowly? Are you breathing rapidly?

What are the triggers when you are around your family?

  1. Criticism is one of the most common triggers.
  2. Financial worries from food to travel plans
  3. Feeling pressured to be happy or positive

These are just a few of many triggers–know yours.

If you are already feeling stressed or wired, be careful. Your nervous system is “trigger happy,” and you’ll not only ruin your experience but create chaos for others.

Practical tips to process triggers

  1. Manage expectations. Holidays have a way of making us want the Hollywood version, a beautiful scene where everyone gets along. Not everyone experiences such stuff. Dashed hopes make things worse. Once you understand how to remain calm during any level of chaos, no one can take away your capacity to enjoy yourself.
  2. Utilize mind/body practices. The learned skills of breath work, meditation, exercising, expressive writing, restful sleep, humming, relaxing music, and mindfulness are helpful. Each person has their own set of tools that works best for them. If you haven’t learned to regulate your stress response, please make the effort to do so. The skills eventually become automatic with practice, and the holidays are a great opportunity to practice.
  3. Avoid all negative conversation, period. No complaining, gossiping, criticism, giving unasked for advice, or discussing your pain or medical care. This is something that is basic to healing and important to do the rest of your life. Consider how much time you are spending in this type of activity.
  4. Create some “space” in your brain before you take any actions. “5–3–2” is one strategy, discussed here.
  • No action in a reaction
  • Flip the switch
  • Move on

5. Take time for yourself. This is something we practice and preach about. Set time aside from everyone. Go for a walk before the hoopla starts if you are staying with your family. Break away from the family during the day or when you need some space to “come back online.”


Keep your perspective! Remember that you always have choices—once your brain is back online. Keep focused on who or what is important to you. How do you wish to show up for the holidays? Practicing the skills discussed, especially noticing when you are triggered and doing something about it. will help you keep your love, peace, and joy during the holidays.

Source: magele-picture/AdobeStock

As always, be kind to yourself. Let the holidays begin!

Dr. Les Aria, who is an experienced pain psychologist working in Northern California. He brings a wide range of approaches into successfully treating and solving chronic mental and physical pain.

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